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Water powered: Utes capture energy from irrigation lines to run farm, mill

Hydroelectric equipment hums and whistles with sounds of renewable energy
The Towaoc Highline Canal makes its way to Ute Mountain Ute farmland from McPhee Reservoir. (Journal file photo)

The kinetic energy that irrigation water produces as it surges through pressurized pipe on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise is wasted as it is reduced to operate the center-pivot sprinkler system.

Now, that precious power can be captured and used.

The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise decided to capture the dissipated energy through a series of small hydroelectric power plants placed on irrigation lines that serve center-pivot sprinklers on the 7,700-acre farm southwest of Towaoc.

“We are being more innovative and scientific in our water use. This is an investment for our farm and a credit to staff who have worked so hard day and night to make it a reality,” said Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart during a recent tour.

This summer, the tribe started its first hydroelectric generator on an irrigation line for a field prepped for winter wheat on the farm, which has 110 center pivots.

Two more generators are installed on nearby field irrigation lines and are staged to begin operations. By 2024, the tribe will have 10 hydropower plants capturing the energy from the pressurized pipes, which drop in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal.

Colorado water and agriculture dignitaries came to check out the new system during a tour with tribal officials and staff members.

The entourage included Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg and staff members, Department of Natural Resource Executive Director Dan Gibbs, members and staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Beth Howell with the Colorado Department of Agriculture joins Farm and Ranch Manager Simon Martinez and Ute Mountain Chairman Manuel Heart in welcoming people to view the farm’s new hydroelectric plant. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Sam Anderson, energy specialist at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, explains how the hydroelectric system at the Ute Farm and Ranch works. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

On the farm, nondescript buildings that house the turbines, piping, generators and electrical panels hum and whistle with the sounds of renewable energy.

Water from the irrigation line surges into the turbine at more than 200 pounds per square inch as it drops 220 feet in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal, engineers said.

The plant captures 18 kilowatts of energy from the flow but leaves enough water pressure to power the center pivot.

Once they are all online, electricity produced from the 10 plants will cover electricity costs for the farm and the adjacent Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill.

“It provides efficient power for our operations. The upgrade in technology is proof that we are taking another step toward our future as a sovereign tribe,” said Ute Farm and Ranch Irrigation Manager Michael Vicenti, a tribal member.

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Planning and development for the more than $1.3 million project began in 2018 in partnership with the tribe, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In all, the 10 hydropower plants will generate 612 kilowatts of energy per year, enough to offset all of the electrical demand of the Ute Farm and Ranch operations, said Sam Anderson, an engineer with the state Department of Agriculture.

With a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler working behind them, Colorado and Ute Mountain Ute officials visit the new hydroelectric system at the Ute Farm and Ranch. They are, from left: Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Gibbs, Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart, Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg and Ute Farm and Ranch Manager Simon Martinez. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Members of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado Water Conservation Board and project staff members view the underground workings of the hydroelectric system at Ute Farm and Ranch. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

Ute Farm and Ranch Manager Simon Martinez said the 10 plants will save $30,000 to $40,000 per year in electric bills.

“We wanted to develop an in-house system, and it has come to fruition with a lot of work and planning,” he said.

Each unit powers a connected center-pivot system and distributes electricity to the independent grid of the tribe’s farm and corn mill.

A USDA grant paid for $929,000 of the project. A Colorado Department of Agriculture grant for $413,000 was awarded for renovation of 18 center pivots and efficient water nozzles. Each micro-hydropower plant costs an estimated $75,000.

Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch staff members contributed the labor for installation, and the tribe will incur additional final costs.

“The tribe’s staff played a critical role in providing labor to install everything. They did an amazing job with very high-quality workmanship throughout and custom fabrication of equipment on-site,” Anderson said.

Installation of the next seven plants will go smoother, “now that we have worked out the kinks,” Vicenti said.

He said the new nozzles on the center pivots emit 7.3 gallons per minute, down from the previous 8.5 gallons per minute. The new nozzles are irrigating mature corn fields, and staff members are eager to find out whether yields remain the same.

“If so, we are right on track for water efficiency,” he said. “We farm in a desert, so there will be some variation; we just don’t want the yields to change too much.”

The project is one of two dozen systems the state Department of Agriculture has assisted in the state as part of the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership.

“We are seeing more renewable energy projects in agriculture, and micro-hydro is one of them. This is one of our biggest projects,” Greenberg told The Journal. “Capturing wasted energy streams is smart business and helps the bottom line. We’re committed to renewable energy, drought and climate programs. From a business model, it cuts costs, and hydropower is also part of tackling climate mitigation issues.”

Ute Farm and Ranch Irrigation Technician Lamar Fields has been involved in the project and is proud of the new upgrade.

“It’s helpful and pays for itself. We won’t have such a huge electric bill,” he said.

He has worked at the corn mill and transferred to work on the farm.

“Our farm and mill puts us on the map, tells people we are here,” Fields said.

Out-of-town farmers on the tour were impressed.

“It’s a neat idea. Wow, I’m jealous of the setup,” said Robert Sakata, a Brighton farmer and Colorado Water Conservation Board member who toured the plant.

Irrigated farms have a lot of potential because most of the infrastructure already exists – simply add hydro turbines parallel to the pressure reducing valves to recover energy dissipated.

Colorado Department of Agriculture’s ACRE3 program will provide free agricultural hydropower feasibility studies to farmers along with grants for up to 40% of project funding.

Colorado Department of Agriculture has identified 5,000 farms that could benefit from agriculture hydropower projects, including two dozen sites in the Yellow Jacket and Pleasant View area of Montezuma County north of Cortez, officials said.

“Renewable energy development is part of our future and the Ute Mountain tribe is leading the way with this project,” Greenberg said.


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